The One Thing You Need To Learn, To Fight Information Overload.
When people value their attention and energy, they become valuable. The thing is, we can only do rare and valuable work when we pay attention to our attention. (Let’s call that paying meta-attention.)
Only when you pay meta-attention can you become more productive, more informed, make smarter decisions, and see the world differently. It’s literally a jumbo package, and it only requires knowing what information to pay attention to.
But that’s difficult now, right? The plague of context-free, garbage content not only makes good information a needle in a haystack, but also severs the link between information and insight.
To make things worse, when we find good content online, we stuff our faces with it, because we believe it means reading better. But is that really any different? Consuming too much also severs the link between information and insight because you’re leaving no space left to think!
You see, it’s not too much information that’s the problem; it’s consuming too much junk. When you finally filter out the junk, the problem becomes consuming too much — leading to a sort of mental indigestion. Both of the above happens because we are not deliberate about our attention. Put simply, the real problem isn’t information overload, but rather attention overload.
And since we’re talking about indigestion, we can say that the root cause of it is one of the three:
- You consumed too much junk
- You consumed too much
- Both of the above
To solve that, my assumption is that we should do three things:
- Manage what we pay attention to
- Manage how we pay attention
- Process them deeply
In other words, to solve information overload — or more appropriately, attention overload — we need to create a reading workflow. Based on out assumptions above and a bit of common sense, we can deduce three rules that will instantly stop this problem, increase the quality of what you consume, and ultimately, improve the quality of ideas you generate.
The first rule is you should not consume content just because it’s handed to you. Not even “personalized” news feeds care about your attention, unless you personalize them. But the more serious issue is that mass-producers of content don’t care one bit about your attention. They often only write for the money, rather than for your best interests.
The second rule is you should not read passively, because you’re going to read anyway. If you want to become better at learning, you have to become better at reading first.
The third rule is you should always make what you read your own. That happens by deeply processing what you read, not by accumulating the number of books you’ve finished.
Now, let’s teach you the whole thing — the reading workflow. Three parts make it up:
- The Reading Funnel
- The Inbox
- The Filters
2. Reading itself.
3. Processing the takeaways.
The Reading Funnel
Back then, information was delivered only as fast as transportation allowed it to be. It might as well be important, so that — you know — you don’t waste time. But not anymore. Because putting out stuff online is easy enough, we’re suddenly “not wasting” another person’s time by giving them nice-to-knows. Context-free, disconnected information became the norm.
That said, the superficiality doesn’t end there. As context became increasingly irrelevant, clickbait and infinite news feeds with biases of their own, have became socially-accepted addictions. Imagine everyone taking cocaine all day like it’s oxygen, but without any immediate, tangible effects; it won’t alarm anyone, so “it might be okay”. Same thing as cigarettes.
In our case, it might really be okay because “it’s just free content”. Yeah, except “free” doesn’t mean it’s not costing you anything.
Think about it: why would anyone, who don’t sell products themselves try so hard to get your attention? Why would anyone create 207-productivity-tips-you-need-to-know content that would finally solve your laziness problems, but not really? Because that keeps us paying attention. That’s right, we’re still paying for “free” information.
Let’s look at it from the other side — at the publisher’s side. When you’re the center of attention, you become the perfect place for placing advertisements. That’s where the problem starts. Sites flooded with ads often don’t produce insightful content; they only want you to keep coming back for by feeding your curiosity and making you feel good about yourself — so that ad networks pay them more. Your best interests were never there in the first place.
The culprit behind this attention overload problem are the mass producers of content who make money from ad impressions and clicks. To make money, they have to produce new content every day — preferably, psychologically-designed content that gets viral. That’s what you know now as clickbait. Put simply, mass-produced, “interesting” content are created solely for money instead of for sparking insight.
As Arthur Schopenhauer puts it, bad writing is a result of trying to cover the page with words, i.e. when you write solely for the money without having anything to say; it’s literally cheating the reader. It’s no wonder why there are a lot of long-winded articles and books today that don’t increase your level of understanding even by a freaking word.
If we’re talking opportunity cost, let me say it like this:
The time you spend reading nonsense is also the time you spend not reading those with good sense.
Schopenhauer seems to agree:
They [referring to bad books] monopolise the time, money, and attention which really belong to good books and their noble aims; they are written merely with a view to making money or procuring places. They are not only useless, but they do positive harm. Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature aims solely at taking a few shillings out of the public’s pocket, and to accomplish this, author, publisher, and reviewer have joined forces.
(FYI this was back in the 1800’s.)
Now, I get that some of the content online are trying to help you and sell you something. There’s nothing bad about it at all; what’s bad is if they don’t deliver. In any case, you’ll sense it immediately if what they have to offer is valuable. The point is being able to tell whether they have your best interests or not. Most ad-based websites don’t. People whose full-time job is “making you rich” don’t.
All of this calls the need for filtering your content online — for becoming your own curator. Think about it, would you eat something just because it’s handed to you? Of course not. Then why would you consume junk content just because it did appear in your face? Recommendations (from people who create great content!) are fine, but clearly, you gotta be picky with what goes into your brain.
Create a Reading Inbox
The way I see it, you should be the ruler of the kingdom of your knowledge. Your people, in that case, are the thoughts you’ve let in. Thoughts that influence you. Thoughts you believe in. Thoughts you base your life on. You want them to work in harmony, not in disorder and discontinuity. That’s why you should permit only the people who act accordingly to enter. The moment you don’t, your kingdom will eventually get infiltrated, corrupted, and taken over by crappy-knowledge.
A carpenter won’t collect flamethrowers, microscopes, nor butterflies for his project; he will only collect tools he will use. In the same way, we should only consume knowledge we can use for the lifelong project of thinking. Why? Because information is a tool for thinking better; tools are no good if they can’t be used for a long time, don’t you think?
Information we can use for a lifetime is nutritious; garbage content is, well, lies and nonsense we want to filter out.
Before you can filter the junk effectively, though, you gotta flex your gigantic procrastination muscles: Create a Reading Inbox.
Why? Because stockpiling to-read content forces you to only read “love at first sight” content instead of the ones the just happen to be in front of you. Second, stockpiling to-read content forces you to only read what has gotten your interest a second time instead of on a whim.
When you go through your curated reading list, you’ll find that you’ll only read a proportion of what have sparked your interest — and that’s okay. That would likely mean you’re reading the best of the best from what you’ve collected.
You can create your own by installing web clippers of your note-taking app. I recommend either Notion or Dynalist for this, because clipping is really smooth for these two. Pocket is also free, but I never really got into using it. (Doesn’t fit my workflow) For paid solutions, I’m only familiar with Readwise, Liner, and Instapaper. I don’t know about the others though.
Tag them as much as you like — if you’ve noticed, I also have a “Goldmine” and “Curation” tag in my Reading List. I don’t have to explain “goldmine”, but the “Curation” means they’re lists that lead to even more articles. Instead of checking each of the links, I instead listed the source so I can get more if ever the webmaster updated it.
As for the discovery part, you can trust recommendations, but of course, do judge for yourself if they’re actually good. And don’t be afraid of going down rabbitholes and checking out links. That’s what the web was created for, anyway. Oh, by the way, I handpicked some of the best links in my reading list; they’re a good start for discovering great content online. (Also follow all links in this post, they’re all good.)
- “Name one idea that changed your life” by David Perell
- Great Reading for Researchers and Scholars by Prof. Robins
- Book of Beliefs at GitHub
- Scholarship: How to Do It Efficiently — LessWrong 2.0
- Articles for plain-text note-takers
- Essay Reading List by defmacro
- reading « julian.digital
- Neil Kakkar’s Idea Muse Newsletter
At the very least, you should curate your social media feed for discovery purposes.
Now then, remember that you can never take in too much signals or too few noise. Aim for discovery, but filter mercilessly.
Let’s now talk about how to filter what you discovered.
Avoiding the Recency-Importance Illusion
Instead of everyone consuming life-changing information, the attention-grabbing degenerate called “news” has always been the go-to alternative. The problem is, newer content doesn’t always mean important content. Recency is just that — recency. Recent doesn’t always mean urgent. Recent doesn’t always mean important. Recent doesn’t always mean good. And recent doesn’t always mean actionable. I call this the Recency-Importance Illusion; a pretentious term I made up but can also be called “fake, unactionable urgency”.
It’s well-known in the marketing industry that anything novel and urgent eventually leads to more sales. That’s a psychological fact. A general equivalent, though, is when the media industry produces news. Unimportant, unactionable, context-free news. Every. Single. Day. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman emphasizes how you can avoid this problem:
…you may get a sense of what is meant by context-free information by asking yourself the following question: How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve?
If content cannot even provide insight, a different way of seeing a problem you have, nor change the actions you’ll do now, then it’s most likely out of its context. If you don’t have the context in the first place, there’s no actual place for it in your brain. Therefore, it’s irrelevant. The news is irrelevant. (Unless you really need the news for your decisions.) If anything, consuming the news will only impede your thinking by feeding your biases like a starving goldfish. To be honest, I think that’s the reason why great ideas don’t seem to common today; the new stuff is favored over the timeless ones.
On the other hand, timeless content — or evergreen content, whatever you like to call it — is likely to stay relevant for a lifetime, thus being tools for thinking in the years to come. Other than that, the best you can use are heuristics — mental shortcuts for solving the complex problem of filtering what to read. Nat Eliason offers one heuristic for online reading:
As a general rule, the more frequently a site publishes about tactics (marketing, personal finance, weight loss, etc.), the less you should listen to it.
…and simplifies filtering any content in a single sentence:
If it doesn’t answer a specific question you’re currently asking, cover philosophical knowledge, or entertain you, then don’t read it.
Actually, Nat’s article on Infomania was the first thing I’ve ever read on filtering what you read, and what got me reading archaic texts in the first place. Since then, reading took more effort, but as a result my thinking evolved in a rapid way.
You see, great men have already answered thousands of important questions; they’re what we know now as the “classics”. Surely, not everything have stayed relevant throughout the years, but then again, those that did stay relevant for a hundred years will likely stay relevant for another hundred.
Also, perhaps the best reason, is that surviving old books were never written for money, but for enlightenment. The goal of their creation was to either persuade, or to educate. Either way, you get good stuff. Thus, the safest conclusion on “the most worthwhile things to read” is timeless content.
Alright, you might think starting with a thick old book might be too farfetched right now, though. But luckily, great thinkers have been old-school-blogging since Montaigne. Yep, they wrote essays. They’re filled with so much wisdom that you can finish them in under 2 hours and still get more than that of a modern book. Most of them are translated pretty well, so you can still get their ideas in more easily understood forms. I get my essays on Gutenberg.org and push them to my PC for reading. Awesome stuff.
Also, one last thing: Read books and essays made by the inventors, discoverers, thinkers, and field founders. They are most likely to change how you think. (and they’re not written for the money) Here are a couple of my intellectual giants:
- Claude Shannon
- Richard Feynman
- Elon Musk
- Robert Noyce
- Richard Hamming
- Rene Descartes
- Immanuel Kant
- Arthur Schopenhauer
- Arnold Bennett
- John Locke
- Francis Bacon
Reading their works is perhaps the closest thing to talking to ghosts. But seriously, when you read a few of their essays, you gradually develop your thinking patterns much faster than reading 20 modern books. (That’s what happened to me, at least.)
Avoiding the Popularity-Importance Illusion
Books become popular to the masses because they’re either easy to read or confirms pre-existing beliefs. (Which technically is a subset of the former) But make no mistake, some books are popular and good; they’re more like exceptions rather than rules, though. Some examples at the top of my head are:
- Mark Manson’s books
- James Clear’s Atomic Habits
- David Allen’s Getting Things Done
But then again, they’re exceptions rather than rules. Most popular books are long-winded. My case? You should read books that avert the masses. One thing I realized by studying psychology is that behavior norms form because they’re easy to do in their behavior setting. Easy behaviors don’t require motivation nor willpower. If you want to get ahead, this obviously isn’t the way to go.
If you read the same thing as everyone, you’ll think in the same way, too. And if you’re reading my blog, I assume you don’t want that happening soon. This happens especially if you read too much — leaving no space to form an own opinion. (More on this later.)
Books that avert the masses, on the other hand, induce a slight, but healthy resistance — just like what you felt when I listed all those dead people! This resistance to information-dense content, in reality, is merely a false sense of danger; it is rather a sense of challenge — a challenge to develop your mental faculties. Logically speaking, information you don’t spend mental effort on won’t be remembered well. (Unless it’s inherently memorable.) Ever wondered why clickbait content is easily forgotten after a couple of seconds? If so, then you know why clickbait, social media, the news, or context-free information aren’t the best use of your time.
I like how Mark Manson puts it in The Attention Diet:
The same way removing stress and strain from our physical bodies causes them to become fragile and weak, removing mental stress and strain from our minds makes them fragile and weak.
Relevantly, it’s also mentally taxing to read content that goes against our own beliefs. If something is too easy to read and feels too good, it’s safe to assume it goes with the beliefs we hold today.
Therefore we can say that reading easy texts exclusively is prone to confirmation bias and exacerbates our blind spots. After all, if you’re ignorant (partially or entirely) of an opposing view, surely you wouldn’t think you’re “objective”? Of course you won’t.
I’d like to point out one last thing:
Timeless, high-quality content are difficult in their own right simply because they contain multiple excellences. Simultaneously, the multiple excellences are what make them valuable, timeless, and unique.
Thus, difficulty is a strong filter for reading. Length may be a good heuristic, too, because it requires sustained mental effort — another source of difficulty.
In any case, these filters I’m arguing for are obviously not always correct, hence “heuristic”. (Surely, there are exceptions.) That said, they often give you — with certainty — maximum ideas in minimum time. Let me tell you, I only read a few essays and articles to spark the ideas I’ve presented in this article. I’m inclined to believe the ideas I produce will only get better as I process what I learned from my own curation of high-quality content.
When we’re talking about reading better, there’s one thing we can know for sure: reading deeply about a single subject is better at leading to mastery than just increasing the number of books you’ve read this year. Reading widely rarely leads to mastery of the material, unless you’re doing some sort of incremental reading. (However, I can’t really speak for that; I haven’t tried it.)
Reading for information is easy. Reading for understanding is hard work. Reading books that avert the masses is only the first step; reading books in a way the masses won’t is the second. Easy reading only makes you informed; hard reading makes you competent. Easy reading prevents you from being ignorant; hard reading makes you smarter.
The difference, then, between a good learner and a bad one is simply mental effort. I’d even argue that exerting more mental effort on the same tasks makes good learners fast, too. But that’s for another day.
The point is good learners know that information is only a tool for thinking, and so they spend mental effort to get the best quality tools out of the best quality sources. In other words, they aim to understand a few books really well than to simply read 50 books without depth.
In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler says that learning from books is a lot like catching a ball. I then thought that books are a thinker’s ideas thrown not only through space but also through time. Obviously, the thinker’s job is to throw his ideas hard; the reader’s job is to catch it. A perfect catch, apparently, is only possible with full concentration. Of course, the farther the throw, (i.e. more dense ideas, more archaic writing) the greater the expected effort as well.
That’s why instead of trying to read quickly, try to do the opposite; read slowly. By “reading slowly” I mean reading analytically and deeply. What is the chapter about? What is the author’s point? What are the main arguments to support it? Thoroughly processing what you read increases the quality of your learning; inevitably, you generate questions that lead to better mastery.
“Successful communication,” Adler says, “occurs in any case where what the writer wanted to have received finds its way into the reader’s possession. The writer’s skill and the reader’s skill converge upon a common end.” In other words, the better your reading skill, the better “idea blocks” you can add to your knowledge structure. Learning, then, becomes a door to more learning.
I won’t discuss it here, so if you want to improve your reading skills, Shane Parrish’s article is the most concise one I’ve ever read.
👉 Recommended Reading: “How to Read a Book” by Shane Parrish
Or just read Mortimer Adler’s book, How to Read a Book (1940). Don’t mind the 1-star reviews — they don’t know what they’re talking about.
“How to Read a Book in 1 Day” is total bullshit. I admit, I fell for that thing and actually tried to do it. But when your goal for reading becomes the number of books you read rather than the enrichment of thinking, you defeat the purpose of it. Surely, it’s easy to think that more reading = more knowledge. But I’m telling you, that’s not always the case. The quantity of reading should be a side effect at best. What you should aim for is better understanding — day in, day out.
While filtering what you read and reading them with effort give you tools for thinking, simply having them is not enough. You have to be able to use them for a long time, at the right time. Eating is just the perfect (most repetitive) analogy: consuming information is really a lot like eating, and thinking is a lot like digesting. If you think about it, consuming is necessary, but digestion plays a more important role. Having tools are necessary, but it’s you who gotta make them work. To quote the philosopher John Locke:
Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking makes what we read ours. We are of the ruminating kind, and it is not enough to cram ourselves with a great deal of collections, unless we chew them over again, they will not give us strength and nourishment.
So think of reading as loading a spring. The more mass you load the spring, the larger the force it has to generate in an attempt to return to equilibrium. (Remember Hooke’s Law?) In the same way, the more stuff we read, the more thinking space we need to make them coherent — with your own opinions on top — and useful.
All I’m saying is that learning too much is a thing. When you’re constantly occupied with acquiring new information, you’re left with no time to think. If your brain were a document, it’s like overwriting it over and over again without hitting save. Perhaps it’s the reason you’re having trouble remembering what you read. In his essay, On Thinking for Oneself, Arthur Schopenhauer says:
The safest way of having no thoughts of one’s own is to take up a book every moment one has nothing else to do. It is this practice which explains why erudition makes most men more stupid and silly than they are by nature, and prevents their writings obtaining any measure of success.
In any case, it’s this practice that prevents you from producing good ideas in the first place, whether you’re a writer or not.
Getting constantly occupied by another person’s thoughts prevents the formation of your own, regardless of the source. In other words, without deep processing, you are bound to get overloaded with foreign thought. So much that you won’t have any of yours at all. Your kingdom of knowledge just got conquered.
And if you are a writer, it’s always a good idea to spend as much time processing your ideas as reading. While I can’t say I’m even remotely good at writing yet, I’ve noticed a common theme surrounding the good ones: When writers have their own opinion, they resonate. Otherwise, they stagnate. Good writers can write about the same thing, but the distinction comes from their treatment of the topic and what they think about it. Those who think for themselves, even about an overused topic, and produce original work are always worth listening to.
(You know, I’m starting to notice I’m citing Schopenhauer a lot…Okay, here we go again)
The business of the novelist is not to relate great events, but to make small ones interesting.
From reading this I thought any ideas can have value in the future through thinking, that thinking turns good ideas into great ones. And I think it’s true, because what other thinking is better than developing a single idea to its fullest? (Developing many ideas into their fullest, for sure; but the point still is deeper processing.)
That said, I value processing not just because it’s good for organizing and developing ideas; I value it because I see it as a rarity. How come? Whenever we face problems, we rush to Google for answers that we forget we had a brain all along. Instead of going to the trouble of reading, you might just have saved both time and effort if you just thought of the matter yourself. Most of the time, you’ll have answers.
Just this 2020, I realized it’s faster to spend time thinking and observing how people solve your problem rather than finding someone who will say the solution you knew all along. (I know it’s creepy, but I took notes about people, darn it. But it’s kinda like having them as a mentor.)
I get it, we just want to confirm the ideas we came up with. But that leaves us dependent on them. We’ll gradually lose the ability to think for ourselves, and that’s no good at all. It can get the job done, but in the grand scheme of things, not really.
Anyway, since you’re already here, I might as well tell you two strategies that helped me process information deeper than ever.
Don’t get me wrong — flashcards aren’t just for memorizing raw facts; they also facilitate future learning. I argued about this in my free course on Anki, but to make it short, I make the case that understanding a concept is gravely insufficient. Like I said, tools have to last long enough so you can use them at the right time. In other words, you have to be able to remember what you understand long enough to build knowledge upon it. Anki is the best tool for that.
If you don’t know how to use Anki, I created a guide for that. You can read it by clicking here.
The Zettelkasten Method
This one is revolutionary for me — I can say for myself that this is the best note-taking method so far. It’s what I used to come up with my own view on this topic.
As you know, writing is originally a tool to extend our thinking. Our working memory proved insufficient over time, and we lacked the means to advance our ideas while holding so many things in our heads. Note-taking — or more appropriately, making your thoughts tangible — creates an external scaffold, an extra RAM for your brain. If that sounds confusing, think of solving a difficult math problem. Chances are you have to write down your solutions or else you won’t be able to hold everything in your brain. Note-taking works the same way. In fact, let’s not call it note-taking, but more like thinking on paper.
Okay, you might think thinking on paper might be cool, but the Zettelkasten method makes paper think. I’m not kidding. It’s a tool used by sociologist Niklas Luhmann to generate 50 books and 400 articles in 30 years. This guy is productive as hell.
In that sense, the Zettelkasten Method isn’t just a deep processing tool, but also a leverage-type productivity tool. I’m going to write about this soon, but in the meantime, check out the most authoritative resource on the web, Zettelkasten.de.
Relevantly, because we’re talking about reading for a while now, you might’ve thought “if not every book is worth my attention, then surely it also applies to ideas inside a book”. You’re right. So I want to recommend you to the same source, and do the Barbell Method of Reading.
Information overload is an illusion — it’s easier to blame the abundance of information rather than our ability to discern what’s important. Yet, attention overload was the real problem all along; that led to mental indigestion. To keep your brain healthy, you create a reading funnel, learn how to read better, and process what you learned deeply.